Literacy For The
Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
Published as "Literacy
in the Information Age," in James Flood, Diane Lapp and Shirley Brice
Heath (Eds), Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy Through the Communicative
and Visual Arts. International Reading Association. New York: Macmillan,
1998, pp. 7-14.
For citizens living in
the United States at the end of the 20th century, it hardly seems necessary
to state the evidence which shows the dominance of film, television,
and other mass media products on the lives of Americans (see Alton-Lee,
Huthall & Patrick, 1993; Howe, 1983; Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990
for examples of recent evidence). There are few educators still in the
practice of teachers who hold the same level of animosity toward television
as the generation of teachers in the 1950s and 60s, many of whom viewed
television as their professional nemesis. Many teachers are increasingly
using mass media "texts" to enrich their subject areas, comfortably
moving between the textbook, the trade book, the newspaper, the film
and the videotape in their efforts to bring rich ideas into the classroom.
As for the study of images
and mass media in elementary and secondary schools, there has been increasing
momentum among language arts and social studies teachers to include
media analysis and production activities in the classroom. However,
since the word "media" has become entrenched in the educational community
as the province of librarians, and media technologies and messages conceived
of as merely a delivery system to transfer messages, images have been
relegated to the margins, taken for granted to serve as mere decoration.
In a society where media use is the central leisure activity for most
of its citizens and the dominant source of information about the world,
the study of the mass media has been neglected in schools. Students
have had little instructional support in helping them analyze and think
about media messages. Educators often mistakenly believe that they are
engaged in expanding the concept of literacy when they use television
to teach with and few understand that media literacy consists of teaching
about media in addition to teaching with it.
So the problem is clear:
our students are growing up in a world saturated with media messages,
messages that fill the bulk of their leisure time and provide them with
information about who to vote for and what buying decisions to make.
Yet students receive little to no training in the skills of analyzing
or evaluating these messages, many of which make use of language, moving
images, music, sound effects, special visual effects and other techniques
which powerfully affect our emotional responses.
Educators' exclusive focus
on language is a legacy of the historical context of the past, when
cultural survival depended upon the mastery of the printed word. While
these skills are even more important today, language is only one of
a number of symbol systems which humans use to express and share meaning.
Changes in communication technologies over the past 100 years have created
a cultural environment which has extended and reshaped the role of language
and the written word. Language must be appreciated as it exists in relationship
to other forms of symbolic expression -- including images, sound, music
and electronic forms of communication. Scholars and educators are coming
to recognize that literacy is not simply a matter of acquiring decontextualized
decoding, comprehension and production skills, but that the concept
of literacy must be connected with the culture and contexts in which
reading and writing are used (Cook-Gumperz, 1986).
This chapter urges educators
to consider this new definition of literacy, a definition adapted by
the author based on the work of educators who identify themselves with
the "media literacy" movement (Firestone, 1992):
Literacy is the ability
to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of
Embedded in this definition
is both a process for learning and an expansion of the concept of "text"
to include messages of all sorts. This view of literacy posits the student
as being actively engaged in the process of analyzing and creating messages
and as a result, this definition reflects some basic principles of school
reform which generally include:
- inquiry based education
- student centered learning
- problem solving in cooperative
- alternatives to standardized
- integrated curriculum
Basic Processes of Literacy:
Access, Analyze, Evaluate and Communicate
The four processes which
constitute the new vision of literacy provide a powerful frame in which
to consider how people develop skills in using language and other forms
of symbolic expression. For example, the ability to access messages
connects with those enabling skills which include decoding symbols and
building broad vocabularies. It also includes those skills related to
the locating, organizing and retrieving of information from a variety
of sources. Access also includes the ability to use the tools of technology,
including video technology, computers and various on-line services.
Access skills are often labeled as information literacy, or more recently,
"driver training for the information superhighway."
The ability to analyze
messages connects with those interpretive comprehension skills which
include the ability to make use of categories, concepts or ideas; determine
the genre of a work; make inferences about cause and effect; consider
the specific strategies and techniques which are used to construct the
work; and identify the author's purpose and point of view. At the secondary
level, the ability to analyze messages also may include a recognition
of the historical, political, economic or aesthetic contexts in which
messages are created and consumed.
The ability to evaluate
messages concerns those judgments about the relevance and value of the
meaning of messages for the reader, including making use of prior knowledge
to interpret a work; predicting a further outcome or a logical conclusion;
identifying values in a message; and appreciating the aesthetic quality
of a work. Although the skills of analysis and evaluation are frequently
conflated by practitioners of media literacy, it is important to recognize
that analysis skills depend upon the ability to grasp and make effective
use of conceptual knowledge which is outside the student's own perspective,
while evaluation skills make use of the student's existing world view,
knowledge, attitudes and values.
The ability to communicate
messages is at the heart of the traditional meaning of literacy, and
the skills of writing and speaking have been highly valued by educators.
In the last twenty years, writing has come to approach the primacy that
reading has gained in the language arts hierarchy. Communication skills
are diverse and, to some extent, media-specific. General skills include
the ability to understand the audience with whom one is communicating;
the effective use of symbols to convey meaning; the ability to organize
a sequence of ideas, and the ability to capture and hold the attention
and interest of the message receiver. Media-specific production skills
for video include learning to make effective choices in framing and
points of view; learning to use visual and auditory symbolism; and learning
how to manipulate time and space effectively through editing.
Expanding the Concept
While the four concepts
provide a new frame for thinking about the processes involved when people
create and share messages, what makes the new vision of literacy so
powerful is the application of these skills to messages in a variety
of forms. At present, reading/language arts educators focus on literature
as the core of the K-8 curriculum: the short story, poetry, drama and
nonfiction are claimed to be ideal because they "motivate learning with
appeal to universal feelings and needs... classic literature speaks
most eloquently to readers and writers" (California State Board of Education,
1986, p. 7).
But they also may seem
disconnected and remote from the experiences of students who, because
of television, are "escorted across the globe even before they have
permission to cross the street" (Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 238). Critics have
claimed that, too often, a literature-based reading/language arts program
"ignores the life experience, the history and the language practice
of students" (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p. 146), and that when literary
materials are used primarily as vehicles for exercises in comprehension
and vocabulary development, students may become alienated from the processes
of reading and writing in a range of contexts.
In the past, educators
have been comfortable to disenfranchise and overlook present-day cultural
products, especially television, even though many works of literature
which are now considered classic or traditional began their life as
popular works designed for mass audiences (Beach, 1992). But just as
scholars and critics have engaged in heated controversy about what texts
are appropriate study objects to be included in the canon of essential
literary works (Gless & Herrnstein Smith, 1992), these debates are filtering
into changes in the curriculum.
Many educators have discovered
that the analysis of contemporary media can build skills that transfer
to students' work with the written word. When educators permit and encourage
the study of contemporary media products in classrooms, students develop
skills which alter and reshape their relationship to media products.
Nehamas (1992) explains that "[s]erious watching ... disarms many of
the criticisms commonly raised about television." More important, analysis
of media texts helps students gain interest in writing and speaking,
and helps nurture students' natural curiosity and motivation. Consider
a story presented by Lauren Axelrod (cited in White, 1993a), a high
school teacher in Houston, Texas:
I used media literacy
concepts to get my low-achievement students to tackle Conrad's Heart
of Darkness and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. I started with an extensive
analysis of the Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now, and we discussed
the film's narrative structure, mood, point of view, rhythm and character
development. Then a team of students read Conrad while another team
read Eliot. We then applied the same concepts to the short story and
poem in group discussion and writing exercises. Finally, students created
a videotape which compared and contrasted the three works with each
other. I saw students turn on to literature in a way I never saw them
engage with anything in the classroom.
Media education exists
as an increasingly vital component of elementary education in Great
Britain, Canada, Australia, Spain and other nations. In Great Britain,
the mandate includes media education as a strand within the National
Standards developed in English, where students are required to study
the ways in which media products convey meanings in a range of media
texts (Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett, 1992; Bazalgette, 1992; Brown, 1991;
Buckingham, 1991; Lusted, 1991; Masterman, 1985). While still controversial
among those who favor a more traditional and narrow view of 'culture,'
scholarly work in media pedagogy has grown widely, and consensus is
growing about the set of concepts, skills and learning environments
which help most strengthen students' ability to access, analyze, evaluate
and communicate messages in many forms.
The New Vision: Key
Current approaches to reading/language
arts often make use of a laundry list of concepts which inform the work
of teachers and students in a classroom. Such lists are the result of
adding new paradigms for learning upon older models. Layer by layer,
the models now used in reading/language arts have become cumbersome
and unwieldy (Hawthorne, 1992). Hawthorne writes, "The scope of English
heightens the individuality of curricular patterns...Teachers are left
to wave the various components into a coherent pattern for themselves
and their students" (p. 116). But a simple and powerful new definition
of literacy, as proposed in this report, makes it possible to identify
the most important processes, concepts and skills for K-12 instruction
and makes use of these with a wide variety of message forms, from folktales
to commercials, from historical fiction to newspaper photography.
Media literacy incorporates
the theoretical traditions of semiotics, literary criticism, communication
theory, research on arts education and language development. Although
the conceptual principles of the new vision of literacy have taken many
forms for various curriculum writers in Great Britain, Canada, Australia
and the United States, the author identifies the following ideas as
critical components of all programs:
All messages are
constructions. Print messages are created by an author who selects the
ideas and words to convey meanings. Images are created by a photographer
who makes similar selections, and television programs are created by
a group of people, led by a producer, who make choices about each image
and word used from among many possible options. The construction of
messages requires careful thinking, creativity and organizational skills.
Knowing how messages are constructed helps the reader appreciate the
artistry involved and helps better interpret the meaning of a work.
Messages are representations
of social reality. Messages have a relationship to the lived experiences
of individuals in many cultures. Even when a message is imaginary, hypothetical
or fantastic, it represents social reality, defined as perceptions about
the contemporary world which are shared among individuals. Messages
also represent the social realities of times and places far removed,
and help us make sense of the past, present and future. People need
the ability to judge the accuracy of particular messages which may or
may not reflect social reality.
Individuals negotiate meaning
by interacting with messages. The meaning of a message is found in the
act of interpretation. Each reader or viewer uses prior knowledge and
experience in the process of reading or critical viewing. A skillful
reader or viewer examines many different stylistic features of the text
and pays careful attention to the context in which the message occurs
in the process of interpretation. Different individuals can find quality
and beauty in various texts.
Messages have economic,
political, social and aesthetic purposes. People create and share messages
for many reasons, but making money is one of the most important reasons
why message making is so important in modern culture. Many messages
produced in our culture have an economic purpose of some sort. When
authors have political purposes, they use a message to gain power or
authority over others. When authors have social purposes, they use a
message to present ideas about how people could or should behave, think
or feel. When authors have aesthetic purposes, they use a message to
experiment with different kinds of symbolic forms and ideas. Understanding
how messages operate in terms of their economic, political, social and
aesthetic purposes helps readers better understand the context of a
Each form of communication
has unique characteristics. An author makes choices about which kinds
of media are most appropriate to convey a particular message. Television
news has characteristics which favor messages which are immediate and
visual, while news photographs have characteristics which favor messages
which have an emotional component. When writing, an author must carefully
choose the most effective genre in which to work since an essay, a memo,
a short story or a poem can all be effective forms depending on the
purpose, audience and content of the message. Being a good communicator
means knowing which formats, genres and media to use in a wide variety
It is clear that the most
dynamic concepts of current practice in reading/language arts instruction
are wholly consistent with these key concepts. But when educators include
the analysis and creation of film, photographs, newspapers, radio and
television, new concepts are required to enable students to ask critical
questions about these contemporary forms. Some of these concepts may
be unfamiliar to reading/language arts teachers, particularly at the
elementary level. For example, teachers in some communities have sometimes
been reluctant to include the analysis of how messages have political
or economic purposes. While it may be argued that analysis of the economics
of literature is not of central value for young students, analysis of
the economics of media messages is essential to help middle school and
high school students understand the nature of communicative messages
in contemporary culture. It would be irresponsible to include the study
of film, television, newspapers or other mass media without providing
students in grades 4 and up with a paradigm to help them understand
the ways in which messages have value in the marketplace.
Media Literacy and Critical
As glossily packaged and
presented film, video and advertiser-supported materials enter the school
classroom, teachers often consider video materials valuable because
everyone in a classroom is presumed to be able to decode the messages
on the screen. But the new vision of literacy presented in this report
is not just aimed at cultivating the relatively simple process of decoding
messages-- it is the sophisticated analysis, evaluation and the active
creation of messages that are the most significant, complex and vital
skills needed for survival in an information age. These take a lifetime
to master fully.
Even very young students
can engage in conceptual analysis and evaluation of media messages,
at a time when they are still beginning to master the decoding and comprehension
skills required for print. According to Resnick (1987, p. 31):
The most important
single message of modern research on the nature of thinking is that
the kinds of activities traditionally associated with thinking are not
limited to advanced levels of development. Instead these activities
are an intimate part of even elementary levels of reading... when learning
is proceeding well.
When teachers make use
of a full range of messages in developing children's literacy, higher-order
cognitive skills can be integrated into the activities of very young
children using media messages as study objects. This helps motivate
students to master the basic accessing skills to crack the code of the
printed word. These analytic concepts, already familiar to students
in their work with media artifacts, can then be applied to print forms.
Elementary teachers who have used this approach find that "much of the
language used to view television critically is transferable to other
media-- noticing camera angles in photography, understanding differences
between reality and fantasy.... There are also many connections to teaching
verbal and written skills " (Lacy, 1993, p. 11, 12).
What happens, according
to British educators, is that when students critically examine a wide
range of texts in both print and visual media, they develop more complex
expectations about everything they read and see. "Media education is
often seen as a way of defending children from television. It ought
to be seen as a way of giving them high expectations of television,
of all media, and of themselves" (Bazalgette, 1992, p. 45). Such views
represent the potential of expanded literacy in reshaping the character
of our nation's near limitless appetite for mass media products and
in doing so, helping citizens reconnect to the rich storehouse of literary
treasures from many cultures, past and present.
If media literacy skills
help young people develop an appetite for reading, we would judge it
a stunning success. If media literacy sklls help young people develop
an appetite for the stimulating, complex and provocative kinds of television
programming increasingly more available as a result of cable television,
then in tim,e we would expect that media indsutries begin to increase
the quality of programming. Such goals have yet to be examined among
researchers because, as yet, there are so few community or school-based
laboratories where media literacy is being implemented at a system-wide
THE CONSEQUENCES OF
EXPANDING THE CONCEPT OF LITERACY
The new vision of literacy
has consequences for some of the most important issues which face American
educators today. As developed in the following pages, this paper outlines
how the new vision of literacy helps restore the important connection
between the school and the culture, making education more relevant to
the communities to which students belong. It also outlines how the new
vision of literacy reflects the kind of authentic learning which occurs
when reading and writing occur in contexts where "process, product and
content are all interrelated" (Edelsky, Altwerger & Flores, 1991, p.
9), and where language skills and language learning are conceived of
as being inherently social processes, requiring direct engagement and
experience tied to meaningful activity.
Building Relevance between
the Classroom and the Community
The claims by now are depressingly
familiar: many students actively resist the process of learning in school,
and while they can decode language, they cannot infer meaning; the school
curriculum is fragmented and decontextualized, promoting indifference
and intellectual dependency (Diaz, 1992; Hirsch, 1989). Fortunately,
elementary educators have already begun to respond to these criticisms
by making changes in their methods of instruction: moving away from
a curriculum which emphasizes facts and isolated skills and toward an
emphasis on collaborative, active learning which involves complex thought
and interpretation (Cohen & Grant, 1993). Multicultural education is
education that values human diversity and acknowledges that "alternative
experiences and viewpoints are part of the growing process" (Grant,
1993). The new vision of literacy proposed in this report is fueled
by this philosophy. It promotes cultural pluralism and social equality
by making changes in the processes and content of school curriculum;
in doing so, it is centered on "building meaningful relationships between
curriculum and life" (Pang, 1992, p. 67).
Carlos Cortes argues that
media literacy is essential to multicultural education, noting that
media literacy strengthens students' knowledge about various media forms,
helps develop analytic and creative skills in responding to media, and
helps students become skilled in using print, images, sounds and other
tools to express and share ideas. Cortes (1991, p. 153) writes, "Media
can be used to stimulate students to consider multiple perspectives
on current and historical multicultural dilemmas." Clearly, both multicultural
education and the new vision of literacy proposed here share the goal
of opening up the canon to expand the range of works which are studied
in the classroom.
Not unexpectedly, much
of the criticism which has developed about the inclusion of works by
Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and others can
be directed at the new vision of literacy as well, which would include
works from popular culture which some critics have labeled "trash."
Educators who believe that "good literature" is a "salve one can apply
to children from the wrong side of the tracks to heal them of their
background" (Beach, 1992, p. 554) are likely to resist any effort which
attempts to make the canon more responsive to the lives of students
and their communities. But John Beach recognizes that the time is ripe
to examine the variety of definitions of "good literature" and suggests
that instead of viewing literature as a pyramid which places classic
works at the top and works of popular culture at the bottom, it should
be considered "like a tree with many branches; the 'best' can be found
at the tip of each branch."
How might the new vision of literacy affect students who come to school
speaking other languages besides English? According to Porter (1990,
p. 153), the instructional methods which are most effective in ESL/bilingual
education are identical with the active learner-centered model which
the new vision of literacy promotes. Techniques which make use of "drama,
songs, objects and audiovisual materials to help convey meaning and
content" are highly effective.
In Portland, Maine, media
artist Huey (also known as James Coleman) developed a media education
program for ESL students speaking 27 languages, where students make
film and video using animation and live-action techniques. Portland
elementary teachers "have found that Huey's approach offers their students
a creative way to improve their English, their public speaking and their
communication skills in general.... and it breaks down walls between
schools and communities through cable TV and closed circuit screenings
and student research within the community" (White, 1993b).
Writing for the College
Board, Hirsch (1989, p. 60) notes:
Over and over
again, teachers in ESL and bilingual classrooms have realized the power
of authentic tasks to motivate communication and language learning...In
searching for authentic tasks and materials, many ESL and proficiency
teachers are looking beyond traditional textbooks to primary sources
in the language they are teaching, including newspapers, television
commercials, menus, hotel receipts, children's books, and journalism
Parent Education. In some
communities, parents are active and supportive players in the day-to-day
life of the school. In too many communities, however, parents are disenfranchised
partners in the educational process. In considering the relationship
between the new vision of literacy and the home-school connection, it
is necessary to identify the high level of ambivalence and concern which
many citizens have with the ways film, television and other mass media
have shaped public discourse. Many adults believe that television has
damaged the process we use to elect public officials; that mass media
organizations disrupt the private lives of individuals unnecessarily;
that violence in film and television programming desensitizes people
and alters their conceptions of the social world; and that the values
of sensationalism have reshaped culture and the arts (Bianculli, 1993).
The new vision of literacy proposed in this report is based on a fundamental
truism about the purpose of democracy: in order for citizens to be engaged
in self-governance, they must critically analyze and evaluate information
and resources. This work is essential if citizens are to take meaningful
action and make meaningful decisions on issues of concern to the community.
But in a culture in which citizens see themselves as spectators and
consumers, democracy is threatened. When citizens do not employ their
skills of analysis and evaluation to information and entertainment products,
apathy and cynicism reign.
The new vision of literacy
could help encourage parents to more fully embrace their responsibilities
to help their children interpret the meanings of the complex messages
which bombard them every day. Too often, parents feel intimidated by
the activity of the classroom, by routines which are established by
educators, who may unintentionally disempower parents from embracing
their own authority as interpreters of textual materials. While some
parents may hesitate to voice their interpretations of a literary work,
parents often feel quite comfortable discussing their interpretations
of a film, a situation comedy, a dramatic series, a documentary or an
op-ed article. The new vision of literacy creates opportunities for
parents and their children to engage with the complex task of sorting
out the meanings of the messages in the environment.
Making Classrooms Centers
for Authentic Learning
Educators have been discussing
how to make learning more authentic since the 19th century, when John
Dewey first began outlining how children's own activity, their work,
could be a vehicle for learning. When learning is authentic, the content
of classroom discourse is meaningful and relevant to students; language
skills are not taught in isolation; connections between subject areas
are emphasized. According to Sizer (1984), in authentic learning environments,
students learn through direct experience with tasks they themselves
value, with intellectual stimulation from teachers who ask thoughtful
questions and provide supportive coaching.
The new vision of literacy
helps nurture new relationships between teachers and students, helping
rebind the current contrast that "exists between paidia (play) and paideia
(education)" (Gallagher, 1992), based on the recognition that the aim
of the reading/language arts teacher is to cultivate a learning environment
where students bring their own naturally energetic exploration to the
study of new ideas. Rather than considering language development as
a series of isolated and fragmented skills, the new vision of literacy
puts students at the center of the processes of accessing, analyzing,
evaluating and communicating messages. Most important, the new vision
of literacy is centered around empowerment, defined as the "process
through which students learn to critically appropriate knowledge existing
outside their immediate experience in order to broaden their understanding
of themselves, the world and the possibilities for transforming the
taken-for-granted assumptions about the way we live" McLaren, 1989,
Integration with other
subject areas. As is clearly evident, the new vision of literacy provides
a simple, process-based model which makes connections between reading/language
arts, the visual and performing arts, social studies and science. Shepard
(1993, p. 35) explains how the new vision of literacy is an ideal tool
for subject integration at the elementary level:
If media literacy
is presented to [teachers] as just another add-on, there will be little
hope for its adoption. If, however, media literacy is presented not
just as something that meets students' needs, but something that will
meet the teacher's need to integrate the disparate elements of a broad
curriculum, then it stands a good chance of becoming an important part
of the curriculum. In fact, media literacy functions so well as an integrator
that it would be worth using even if it were not as intrinsically important
as it is. Since mass media artifacts are relevant to science, social
studies, the visual and performing arts as well as reading/language
arts, teachers can easily make connections which stretch across subject
areas by teaching with media and teaching about media.
In some communities, teachers
across the core subject areas are being trained in how to integrate media
literacy concepts into many curriculum areas. In Billerica, Massachusetts,
teachers in language arts, social studies, health education, science and
the visual and performing arts are discovering the synergy which results
from team-developed initiatives. For example, in the spring of 1994, teachers
collaborated on a district-wide program to help students critically analyze
tobacco advertising as part of the health curriculum. Students examined
the historical, political and economic dimensions of tobacco advertising;
they reviewed, categorized and analyzed a huge volume of persuasive materials
designed to make smoking look attractive; and they made their own public
service messages, targeted at their own community, to persuade them against
smoking. More than 2,000 students in grades K - 12 participated in the
project by designing slogans, writing newspaper editorials, designing
billboards, bumper stickers, posters, radio ads and videotape public service
announcements. Teachers persuaded the local billboard company to put up
one student's billboard design on the major highway of the town, giving
thousands of citizens the opportunity to read a child's message, and creating
a powerful message for students. Such examples emphasize the ways in which
media literacy activities bring a renewed sense of relevance between the
worlds of the classroom and the world of contemporary culture.
Using new tools of assessment.
When assessment is authentic, it has as its central purpose the goal
of providing feedback to a child and his or her parents about the quality
of the learning experience. When assessment is authentic, it mirrors
the ways in which standards of quality are evaluated in the world outside
the classroom: through close examination of products and performances.
For more than a century,
assessment in the United States has been shaped by the needs of scholars
and academics to standardize and quantify learning experiences (Gould,
1981). This has led to an atomized, fragmented view of the learning
process, one conducive to "data reduction." Now, educators are coming
to recognize the need to reclaim the assessment process, and as a result,
diverse new forms of assessment are being used in schools.
The new vision of literacy
provides simple and direct opportunities to observe, monitor and evaluate
the processes of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and communicating
messages in a range of informal and formal settings. Since the creation
of messages is central to the new vision of literacy, portfolio-based
models of assessment are consistent with the new vision. Indeed, the
premise of the new vision is based on the idea that the processes of
accessing, analyzing and evaluating messages all contribute to the creation
and communication of messages, so that students can make direct connections
between their reading and their writing, their viewing and analysis
of images, and the process of creating messages using language, images,
sounds, music, graphics and video.
The Toronto Board of Education's
Benchmark Program has been using an assessment model designed to demystify
educational goals and illuminate the nature of good performance (Larter
& Donnelly, 1993). By combining authentic performance activities with
systematic observation and holistic evaluation, teachers can assess
student skills in a way which most closely matches the broad general
skills which are at the core of reading/language arts instruction. For
example, in one benchmark of students' ability to comprehend nonprint
information and their oral communication skills, grade three students
in Toronto are asked to watch a videotape on owls and explain the major
ideas in their own words. Students were found to generally lack strong
skills in the comprehension of informative video, perhaps because their
expectations about television shape their level of motivation and effort
in decoding (Salomon, 1979). Such evidence reminds us of the lessons
of the reading comprehension scholars-- how important it is not to assume
that our students understand what they see just because they see it.
The development of standards,
tied to authentic performances, which allow educators to assess the
quality of students' writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills
is consistent with the new vision of literacy. The province of Ontario
was the first in Canada to mandate that media literacy instruction be
at least 30% of the reading/language arts program in grades 7 - 12.
The performance of younger students from the Toronto Board of Education
results suggests that students lack basic comprehension skills of information
presented in video formats, pointing clearly to the necessity of direct
instruction to help students in grades K-8 learn to comprehend, interpret
and analyze a wide range of texts, including messages from television
and the mass media.
Staff development issues.
Teachers are just as ambivalent about media culture as the rest of the
citizenry. As discussed earlier, teachers have a wide range of attitudes
about the value and consequences of broadening the concept of literacy
to include new materials, especially popular music, film, television
and music videos. However, teachers who have attempted to incorporate
these materials into their classroom realize that students have a tremendous
amount of knowledge and interest in these messages, and teachers and
students can share together in the learning process.
It is not difficult for
teachers to move from teaching exclusively with media to addressing
media as study objects. Some teachers have described the process as
similar to the process of "consciousness raising" about gender and race
which many educators experienced in the 1970s. "It's like putting on
a new pair of glasses-- you see the same things [in media culture],
but now I approach these messages differently," wrote one teacher in
a program of teacher education at the Harvard Institute on Media Education,
a staff development program in media literacy that was conducted by
the author in 1993 and 1994 that attracted educators from across the
But German educator Dichanz
(1992) writes plainly about what it takes to make the new vision of
literacy a reality in schools: "It is the staff that has to translate
tasks... into practical work, and it is that staff that has to be provided
with the theoretical background for this new approach..." For US. educators,
this means that the work of staff development is best accomplished,
not by individual teachers acting independently, but through coordinated
and sustained efforts, using resources and tools which help them gain
access to new ideas and practice new strategies of managing classroom
activity. Such work is well underway at the state, district and local
levels. For example, the State of New Mexico has mandated that all students
complete a media literacy course before high school graduation, and
begun a process of teacher training so that media literacy will be integrated
into the curriculum at all grade levels. And in the community of Billerica,
Massachusetts, after three years of study, twenty six teachers have
completed the first Master's Degree in Media Literacy, supported by
Merrimack Education Center and Fitchburg State College, in order to
implement a new vision of literacy in grades K-12 integrated within
existing subject areas. Teachers graduating from this program are beginning
to teach additional teachers in the New England area.
If media literacy is to
emerge as a new vision of literacy for the information age, then a high
degree of coordination will be required from among a range of shareholders:
the scholarly community, educators in K - 12 environments, parents,
the publishing and media production industries, and the standardized
testing industry. Given the decentralized nature of American schools,
it is unlikely that such coordination will receive the support it needs,
and more likely that media literacy initiatives will develop as a result
of innovation and experimentation in the diverse "labs" of individual
districts, schools and classrooms.
For an institution which
has historically clung to the concept of literacy as the central organizing
force of education, we must respect the time it will take educators
and scholars to promote the type of sustained and meaningful change
that is needed for our schools.
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